Tongans' champion of democracy to push for full voting rights

By Yvonne Tahana

'Akilisi Pohiva. Photo / Sarah Ivey
'Akilisi Pohiva. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Tonga's democracy warhorse, 'Akilisi Pohiva, is to push a private member's bill in Parliament to bring in a full representative voting system, firing a broadside at the sitting Prime Minister for failing to take action on anti-corruption measures.

Mr Pohiva, 70, leader of the Democratic Party, has been campaigning for reform for more than 30 years. At the last election, under the country's new constitution, the nobles elected nine MPs and the population elected 17, 12 of whom were from Mr Pohiva's party.

But the former broadcaster and newspaper owner was blindsided by the other five crossing the floor to support the nobles, ensuring that an aristocrat, Lord Tu'ivakano, became Prime Minister.

Many had expected Mr Pohiva, as party leader, to be the new PM. He says his party and the independent MPs were at fault, failing to present a united front and so ending up with a noble leading the "semi-democratic" system.

Mr Pohiva wants to introduce a bill in the remainder of the four-year term to enable Tongans to vote for the nine noble seats, as an interim step towards full democracy.

"It's not easy for the nobles to give up their power. The Tongan people were not expecting a noble to be our first Prime Minister of our new government. People are not happy because we've been struggling for more than 30 years for the people to take the leadership for the people."

Pushed on whether he would still like to lead the country, Mr Pohiva said it would be for Tongans to decide. However, he didn't hold back criticising Lord Tu'ivakano for his lack of commitment to anti-corruption measures.

"The rule of law is so weak. We still don't have an anti-corruption commission. We passed that law four years ago."

Tonga faced huge challenges, Mr Pohiva said. The economy was going "down the gurgler". Remittances, which made up most of the country's income, were falling at the same time as Tonga was hugely indebted, taking loans of $120 million from China.

Cultural practices that placed the burden of paying for family events on the wider family hindered savings, Mr Pohiva said.

The constitution allows for a vote of confidence to be taken after the first 18 months of a four-year term. That threshold is about to be passed. Mr Pohiva said his party hadn't discussed calling for a vote when Parliament resumed in May, but it was a possibility.

He had kinder things to say about Tupou VI, Tonga's new King, whom he and other public representatives met last year.

"The implication ... in the meeting was he wants the people to take the leadership. I think he will make a good King."

Meanwhile, the secretary to the Cabinet, Busby Kautoke, said 10 days of official mourning for Tupou V would end tomorrow - the same day as the new King's kava ceremony - in line with the late monarch's request.

- NZ Herald

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